Farr's legacy: one Defence, one tech vision

Greg Farr has been at the helm of the Department of Defence for five years, battling with the department's bloated IT infrastructure.

When Greg Farr started as the chief information officer (CIO) of the Department of Defence (DoD) five years after a stint at the taxation office, he said that IT was thought of as the DoD's "broken backbone".

Greg Farr
(Credit: Department of Defence)

The problem was a lack of oversight on what was happening inside the vast organisation, meaning that although the DoD had access to some talented people who were doing great work, there was no cohesion, and things had become run down.

"There were a lot of groups of people doing really good work, but they were all isolated," he said.

He had to step in to implement frameworks, architecture and governance to make sure that they were working towards a common goal.

"Yes, clearly the Defence IT was not delivering the outcomes for the organisation, but I think that was more to do with the fragmentation than the people."

Now, after five years in the job, Farr is able to look back and give himself a 7.5 out of 10 for his efforts to move the DoD to one standard information environment.

So important were his efforts that he was the first CIO to be appointed by the DoD to a band-three executive role, and it was the first time that the CIO had sat at the DoD committee table.

Farr was able to build up capability from that influence. In 2009, the responsibility for IT within the Defence Material Organisation (DMO) was also moved under his aegis , which he said was a natural progression.

With that, the stage was set for the DoD's Strategic Reform Project, which laid out over a billion dollars in spending, with the hopes of recouping AU$1.3 billion in savings over 10 years.

Just getting an idea of what was being spent was a trial. Farr introduced more sophisticated project- and program-management change, and nurtured cultural change with more experienced project managers to ensure that the DoD would know what every dollar was being spent on within its operations.

"I think we've got a very high level of transparency now," he said. He is now able to put down a whole portfolio of work, not only identifying what projects are on, but also how much the department is spending in separate areas like remediation and software licences.

It is this transparency, paired with a new understanding of how critical IT is to the operation of the DoD, that led to AU$550 million being fed in to the strategic reform project, although the savings levels will remain the same.

And the work that Farr has started under this program — to provide the DoD with a cohesive enterprise platform by consolidating the DoD's 200 datacentres — has been the most rewarding, he said.

The department still has around that number of facilities, but it's now in the process of moving its primary datacentre to Sydney. This is a challenging proposition, as Farr had to figure out the best time to do so, and fit that into his already bulging program of works.

One item on his program of works has been the replacement of PMKeyS — the DoD's Oracle personnel and HR system .

Farr laughed when asked about the project, and said, "I don't think I'm allowed to say that word." HR systems and the DoD environment are complex, with diverse conditions of service. This makes the PMKeyS replacement a very difficult project to run. There was also a lot of customisation in the older system, but Farr has no doubt that the department has the basis for a successful program.

"There's real recognition that we've just got to crack this."

Another project has been the implementation of thin desktop by Thales, which will be rolled out early next calendar year.

"I'm very happy with that," he said. "The pilot is showing that people will love it."

It will save AU$277 million over six years, Farr said, as part of the strategic reform program.

He also looks back with pleasure on what he has achieved in the mobility space, enabling access to restricted protected networks over mobile and wireless, with employees allowed to use personal devices as long as they use them over the Citrix remote-access platform that he set up.

He said that he is perfectly happy to implement such solutions for information up to a certain level of classification, adding that except for its size and some security considerations, the DoD is much like a normal company.

He has had to spend time working on projects that he can't talk about much, for instance in the area of command and control and war fighting, for which around 450 to 500 military employees within the CIO group are used. There are around 1200 civilians working in the group. Luckily, the military side that he can't talk about was in good nick when he got to it, and it didn't need the overhaul that the enterprise systems did.

Now it's time for Farr to take a bow and leave the stage.

"It really hasn't sunk in, I don't think. There's just so much on at the moment."

The successor will need to finish building a basic standard information environment for the DoD. Once that is done, they will be able to use that foundation to build better applications, including big data.

"It's something that I think is the next phase for us," Farr said. "Once upon a time in the great old days, you were judged on whether you could find data. Now we're so swamped with it, it's how we make sense of it."

To his successor, he gives three points of advice on how to carry the DoD baton:

  • Immerse yourself in the DoD — understand that you're there to support the Australian Defence Force (ADF)

  • There are a lot of really smart people around, with different views you have to understand

  • Just enjoy it for what it is; it's a great place to work.

"If you're going to be a CIO, you wouldn't want to be a CIO anywhere else," he said.